OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Olaf Scholz has seen his popularity ratings plummet in Germany amid the Ukraine crisis. After a promising start, the Chancellor has retreated into Merkel-era habits that no longer match the country he is leading, writes Brian Melican.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) at an April cabinet meeting in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP/POOL | John Macdougall

Contrary to what many commentators are saying, what’s most surprising about Olaf Scholz’ precipitous fall in popularity is not how quickly it has happened – but rather how slowly.

Both among German voters and our allies abroad, Scholz had, until very recently, been given the benefit of the doubt to a very generous extent. After all, it would be simply unrealistic to expect him to magic away in six months Germany’s sixteen years of accumulated backlogs: a stalled green energy transition, the chronic unattractiveness of public service jobs, potentially crippling overdependence on strategic rivals Russia and China…

No one expected any of this to get solved overnight, and at least it looked like Scholz and his coalition were making a good start. So there was a huge amount of goodwill.

In what seems like an eternity ago, back in early February when the Ukraine war was still a “Ukraine crisis”, Joe Biden welcomed Olaf Scholz on his first official visit to the White House and, despite the fact our Chancellor refused to make clear that Nord Stream 2 would be cancelled if Russia invaded Ukraine, called Germany a “reliable partner” and did his best to keep his frustration in check.

It was sensible, grown-up politics: instead of trying to strongman Scholz with a public shaming, Biden worked behind closed doors to get him on side. Most of Germany’s allies, despite increasing exasperation with our shilly-shallying, did likewise.

‘Man of the hour’

This approach paid off: in his Zeitenwende speech in early March, Scholz appeared very much the man of hour, cementing the impression I and many others have of him as someone who, while not wholly devoid of dogmatism, is nonetheless willing to change positions in the face of good arguments. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine led him to reassess his stance to date, find it wanting, and correct it accordingly.

His honesty and solemn undertaking were rewarded with plaudits from our allies – and with an unexpected bounce in popularity among voters who, it turns out, had also been doing some thinking and had overcome their long-held distaste for military matters.

READ ALSO: Zeitenwende: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

Yet it’s been downhill from there on in. Essentially, Scholz’ speech wrote a hefty cheque that his actions since have not cashed. In the far-reaching nature of the foreign and defence policy shift he announced, Scholz displayed the strong leadership which he prides himself on delivering, only to then lose the courage of his own convictions.

Instead of using the momentum his volte face gave him to grasp the bull by the horns, he shrank back from any immediate measures which might prove too radical: no heavy weapons for the Ukraine; no embargo on Russian gas; not even any further major speeches. Yes, Germany has changed its stance and yes, Germany is supplying Ukrainian forces with much-needed material. Yet the overall impression – not just among Ukrainians, but among our allies and even the general public – is that it is still too little, too late and that, as ever, Germany is reacting in a sluggishly over-bureaucratic manner. The result is widespread dissatisfaction with Scholz’ government and, naturally, with Scholz himself.

In Scholz’ inability to make good on his pledge, there are three factors at play. One of them is beyond his control; the other two are of his own making.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take before Germany turns off Russian gas?

Inherited problems

Firstly, Scholz is hamstrung by circumstances. Even those of us in favour of supplying heavy weapons to the Ukraine have to accept the damning assessment of every informed professional who has examined the Bundeswehr in recent years: our own forces are operating on a bare minimum. This severely limits what we can offer. And this inability to defend even ourselves, let alone our European allies, has been twenty years in the making. The same is true of Russian gas: while I argue for an immediate embargo, I do not deny that this would have serious effects on our economy and society – and that, here too, there is no magic wand that can be waved over two decades of criminally negligent energy policy.

Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) hands flowers to former chancellor Angela Merkel as she leaves office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

This is the situation we are now in. How we got here, however, throws an unflattering light on Scholz, who was, until he became Chancellor, Finance Minister in yet another Merkel administration which allowed defence budgets to remain below par, Bundeswehr procurement to go to pot, and our dependency on Russian gas to go from around 40 percent to 55 percent.

This is the second factor in Scholz’ current failure: although he has, commendably, identified past mistakes and promised a different approach, he is still proving unable to surmount his own habits and instincts. Even where other options would now be open, Scholz is still applying the methods of the Merkel years – delaying, delegating down to committees, and hoping problems solve themselves – in circumstances which he himself has publicly identified as radically different.

READ ALSO: ‘Too little, too late’: Scholz under fire for inaction on Ukraine

Here, the issue with the Marder IFVs is symptomatic: Rheinmetall has literally dozens of these armed people carriers sitting around which could be refurbished at relatively short notice, either to be sent directly to Ukrainian forces or cascaded down to the Bundeswehr to replace any supplied to Kyiv.

Scholz is sticking to the unconvincing line that Ukrainian soldiers couldn’t be trained to use them in time – in spite of the obvious fact that the country’s forces have already lasted longer than anyone thought they would and that the war is now clearly going to drag on. Zeitenwende politics this is not. I’m not alone in expecting proactive executive action here: Scholz has a problem when MPs in his own coalition generally well-disposed towards him such as Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman repeatedly take to the airwaves to denounce his “prevarication”.

No sign of a Zeitenwende

And that is the third factor at play here. Regardless of actions taken or not taken, in stylistic terms, Scholz is not living up to his own hype. This is what, in my view, is denting his popularity the most. No one is expecting miracles, but having come to power implicitly promising to explain and justify his policies more than his predecessor Angela Merkel – who preferred to preside, sphynx-like, over proceedings – Scholz has now, after a promisingly communicative start, retreated back into the Chancellery. His silence, both on the Ukraine and on other pressing issues (especially Covid policy) is leaving too much room for interpretation – and dissatisfaction.

German tanks at a military training ground in Saxony-Anhalt

German tanks at a military training ground in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

No doubt, Scholz is hoping to himself “do a Merkel”, keeping a low profile and becoming entrenched to the point where Germans cannot imagine life without him and so eventually come to adulate him. Times have changed, though – and as the Chancellor who coined the term Zeitenwende (“change in times” or “turning point”), nobody should be more aware of that than Olaf Scholz.

Germans are changing with the times, and now expect more than aloof Merkel-style management of our various national weaknesses: they want the sustained, systemic change Olaf Scholz said he stood for. And the change needs to start (or perhaps: start again) at the top with him. Scholz can no longer count on the benefit of the doubt.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany has been forced to learn the lessons from its post-war pacifism

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OPINION: Why Oktoberfest is one of Germany’s worst beer festivals

The world-renowned Oktoberfest is returning to Germany after a two-year pandemic break. But one Bavarian local says pricey beers and rowdy mobs make it a special kind of hell - and there are much better festivals out there.

OPINION: Why Oktoberfest is one of Germany's worst beer festivals

A couple of weeks ago, we learned that Oktoberfest would finally return to Munich after two years of pandemic-related cancellations. Cue wild celebrations in the capital of Bavaria, with many clinking of comically large beer glasses and rhythmic swaying to AC/DC. Well, sort of. Let’s be honest, Germans rarely go wild, unless there’s a World Cup on or someone receives a particularly large tax rebate. Of course, Oktoberfest is one of those sanctioned moments of German delirium, and by all accounts organisers expect 2022 to be a very big year for lovers of Lederhosen, Wurst and, most importantly, beer.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Oktoberfest to return in 2022 after pandemic pause 

Of the handful of things people know about Germany, Oktoberfest is usually chief among them. Such is the pull of Germany’s largest and oldest beer festival. Although many people know of it, few know its background. Originally conceived as a one-off celebration for the wedding of Ludwig I of Bavaria to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810, it continued to be celebrated to this day – which essentially makes it the longest running wedding reception in history. Though the Bavarian monarchy is now defunct, they have left in their stead something people from around the world can enjoy, as long as they can book a table.

Revellers enjoy the Oktoberfest atmosphere in September 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Ultimately, this is one of the major downsides of Oktoberfest. It’s really busy, and with it being cancelled for two years, it’s likely to be all the more busy as revellers flock to enjoy its return. Despite the vast majority being happy to dust off their Trachten (traditional costumes) come September, I know plenty who will be gritting their teeth for the onslaught of drunken visitors to Munich. While the bright lights of the Wiesn, as it is also known, will be front and centre in people’s minds, many Münchner will also remember the vomit-filled bins and mass public urination that always accompanies festivities.

READ ALSO: Oktoberfest in numbers: A look at Germany’s multi-billion euro business

Look past Oktoberfest to find local gems

Moreover, and this is where I usually have to speak in hushed tones, the Oktoberfest is probably one of the worst events of its type in the whole country, let alone Bavaria. Sure it has the scale and the brand awareness, but when has that ever been a good thing? Frankly, if I were to choose to go to any beer festival in Germany, Oktoberfest would be way down the list of options. The truth is, every city, town and village in Germany has something similar happening at some point in the year. In some places, it can be as many as three times annually. They aren’t as big and maybe they don’t have all the fairground attractions, but they will definitely have the beer and food. In certain places, such as Franconia, they offer far more than Oktoberfest ever could.

Take one of my favourite festivals, Erlangen Bergkirchweih. Most people outside Germany don’t even know it exists, but it is easily one of the most glorious of events. Situated on a small hill just outside the nondescript city of Erlangen, Bergkirchweih has all the same attractions as Oktoberfest, but with one vital difference: Franconian beer. Sure Augustiner get’s all the attention, but there are ten breweries in the Nürnbergerland alone that could handily match Munich’s favourite beer. 

Gingerbread hearts say "greetings from the Erlangen Bergkirchweih" in 2019.

Gingerbread hearts say “greetings from the Erlangen Bergkirchweih” in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

What makes Erlangen Bergkirchweih so special? Well, the beer obviously, but the location is equal to any Maß. Many local breweries have their own little caves calved into the hill, originally used to store beer, but during Bergkirchweih they become little bars all of their own. Honestly, sitting under a canopy of elms, chestnuts and oaks, sunlight flitting down through the branches as you sup on an ice-cold Festbier, there’s really nothing like it. 

No one I’ve taken there has ever had a bad time, many of them don’t talk for an hour or so as they take in the surroundings and marvel at the prices, another benefit of not being at Oktoberfest. When my brother first saw it, he was silent for a very long time. Worried he wasn’t enjoying it, I asked if everything was OK. He looked at me, practically misty eyed and said simply: “It’s like a Grimm’s fairytale!”. 

Even if you can’t make your way to Bergkirchweih, should you find yourself travelling through Bavaria in the summer, look out for any signs that there might be a Dorffest or Volksfest in your vicinity. Hell, even a Jazzfest will do. They’re basically the same thing, except with added zoot. My advice would be to take the chance and check it out. Sure, you might end up in a tent full of farmers with hands like frying pans, but I guarantee it will be 10 times the experience of the plastic, overpriced, overly busy Oktoberfest.